This is an unusual website. It’s not a marketing site, a fundraising site, a movement site, an ideological site, or a self-promotional site. Instead, it’s designed to be, primarily educational.
“Old wine in new bottles” could be its name. “Learning from history” could be another, as could “The Fire Next Time,” though that was already taken.
It’s a product of the Effective Communities Project, containing the best work of Steven E. Mayer as its director, and also from his 23-year tenure as founding Executive Director of Rainbow Research, Inc.
It’s partly a magazine, partly a portfolio, partly an archive – but it’s primarily an active teaching site, intending to be useful.
The kinds of lessons we offer on this website. We see these four essential audiences:
- Grantmaking foundation staff and board. Grantmaking foundations hold vast resources, moral authority, and intelligence, with mission statements that command them to “do good” – their bottom line. Their decisions of what to support and not support have major good and not-so-good consequences. We’d like to see them do it better.
- Nonprofit program staff and executive directors. Nonprofit organizations have similar missions as grantmaking foundations, but not the resources. They strive to provide benefits and upgrades to individuals, communities, and other organizations, and to provide solutions to often-unseen systemic and structural problems. We’d like to see them do it better.
- Activists, individual donors, and the volunteering public. This country is blessed with an extraordinary level of gifts of committed “time, talent, and treasure,” donated by individuals in hopes of contributing to progress in the same arenas where their allies in nonprofits and foundations work. They too make choices in what to give and to whom. In a sense, they are our ultimate audience, since in a sense, they’re in the driver’s seat. We’d like to see them do it better.
- Evaluators and evaluation students. Evaluators are the outliers in the social network described above, but they too have a great thirst to be useful in efforts to improve the world. If they didn’t, they’d just be professors. Evaluators usually enter at the behest of the funder, with various mandates, many of them absurd and counter-productive, which they try to implement in the name of providing a useful service to their client. We’d like to see them do it better
As a longtime student of program and organizational effectiveness, I know what “doing it better” can look like. My formal studies allow me to know when the formal demands of science are useful and when they are not. And when they’re not, we must invent new forms that draw on the strength of science and empiricism while also drawing on the strengths of humans, communities, and cultures. That’s what I’ve tried to do over the years, and that’s what I hope my archived publications and their newly-crafted cover Articles show.
How did we choose products for inclusion? Three considerations:
- They stand the test of time. That is, they provide lessons for today. Important things haven’t changed much: the challenges to community development, to social justice, to human dignity and respect; the dilemmas of evaluation design; and basic organizational dynamics.
- They’re still useful, and instructive to current challenges. As I’ve looked through my work from the vantage point of time, I’ve been kind of amazed, actually, at how much there is to be learned and applied. While clients and audiences got the key lessons the first time around, much was missed in the imperatives of the moment then. One way that philanthropy underperforms is that it ignores lessons that should have been learned and applied much earlier.
- They’re innovative in their approach to evaluation. When Rainbow Research first applied for tax-exempt status we were told that to be recognized as serving the public good, our products were to be for the public, addressed to the public, for the public’s use. That imperative gave shape to our products, and we took steps to make sure that our work was accessible to every public library in the country. We, and continuing at ECP, were very early practitioners of the “lessons learned” and “promising practices” styles of evaluation. These drew on strategies of appreciative inquiry, with demands for evidence of mutually-agreed signs of success, respect for cultural norms, and a bias towards constructive forward motion, “to improve, rather than prove” the efforts taken.
How is this website organized?
- At the heart of the website is the Archives — the database, the storehouse, the treasury – a set of Publications representing the best of my work.
- Attached to each archived Publication is an Article I’ve recently written to present key lessons to the four audiences. At this point there is only one paragraph per audience, but the intention is to seriously grow this.
- Each Article is featured, in a magazine-like “corner” or “department” – one for Grantmakers, one for Nonprofits, one for Activists, and one for Nonprofits. We’ll change these around from time to time as new lessons emerge and to shake up the look.
- The JustPhilanthropy blog, produced initially as an independent site but now incorporated here is, as its subtitle suggests, written “From the Confluence of Philanthropy, Justice, and Evaluation.” The blog posts are largely historical with few new entries yet reading them now one can easily conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Why does the website look like this?
- It’s an experiment in communicating research findings. It’s somewhere between a comic book and a stuffy report, between a page-turning magazine and the stacks of a library.
- The cover Articles let me employ more contemporary memes, like “Program Ineffectiveness affects millions of Americans every day…”).
- Pictorially, the site is based on the MH Magazine theme as produced by the good folks at The Mighty Mo, crackerjack WordPress mechanics. A shout-out also to CoCo – a Coworking and Collaborative space.
This is an emerging, growing website. Currently, it’s primarily an Archive with perhaps 35% my collection and only the beginnings of lessons for the four different audiences (grantmakers, nonprofits, activists, and evaluators). It’s an evolutionary process for me, so don’t be too judgy (that’s an evaluation term.)
I can’t say that financial donations to Effective Communities Project will make this work happen any faster, but it will tell me there’s a sense of appreciation and perhaps even anticipation out there. You can donate here.
To send comments to Steve Mayer, Contact us.